Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Art Show: What should we expect?

Had a pleasant afternoon wandering the Art Gallery of Ontario's spacious digs on Dundas St. in Toronto recently.  The purpose of the visit was to see a special exhibit entitled, "Maharaja: The Splendour of India's Royal Courts".  It presents art, clothing, furniture, jewellery and other objects from 1700 - 1947, when India was ruled by, or at least influenced by, many (many) local princes.  (Well, they were kings before the British came, but that's for another day.)

There were a lot of beautiful pieces, and a lot of detailed information.  What there wasn't was a story: no narrative thread that tied the whole thing together, and made it more than the sum of its parts.

After touring through room after room of artwork (including some truly beautiful paintings) and objects (the custom Rolls Royce Phantom II is truly automobile as work of art), I was no closer to understanding why I was looking at these pieces.  They were lovely, in and of themselves - fine.  But what did it mean - in the context of India's cultural history, for one thing, and India's political history, for another?  There were a lot of facts, but no synthesis.  No "so what?".

OK, it's an art gallery, and shouldn't a consideration of art be objective?  To give a story, or 'thesis' to the exhibit would submit it to the subjective interpretation of the exhibit producers - and maybe they've got it wrong.

But, isn't art inherently subjective?  Doesn't every work leave itself open to interpretation by the viewer, allowing diverse audiences to draw very different conclusions?  Subjectivity is such an integral part of art that having it play a role in the exhibit's design and presentation seems, if anything, to be entirely in keeping with the spirit and values of an art gallery.  Besides, the decision of what to put in an exhibit - and consequently what to leave out - so completely introduces the idea of subjectivity to the proceedings that any further objection must be dismissed.  Exhibits are subjective.

So why isn't anyone making these exhibits sit up and talk - really driving home an idea or concept that goes beyond the small story each individual piece tells, and instead painting a broader canvas, daring to tell us something we don't already know.

This wasn't the first time I've noticed this.  Last year, I took in the touring show on Tutankhamun's Egypt, also at AGO.  There was a similar absence of direction in that exhibit - it too lacked a climax to the presentation.

The King Tut display was not, of course, an AGO production, but brought in lock, stock and sarcophagus from an outside company.  Which only suggests that this is an attitude that pervades the art world far beyond the neutral-tinged walls of AGO.

And that's a real shame.  There's a lot that these paintings, sketches, clothes, and other artifacts have to tell us, not just about their time and place of their origin, but about human beings - and therefore today's society too.  I just wish that the curators, art historians, and (doubtless) business-people who bring these exhibits to the public would stop playing it safe, and instead encourage those stories to reveal themselves to museum-goers of the 21st Century.